Activity Ideas

Indian Rawhide Drum Making

Turtle image on Al Chandler Goodstrike's hand drum

“They say when an unborn child is developing, the first thing they hear is the heartbeat of the mother —so when babies go to powwows and hear the music, it is just natural. The drumbeat symbolizes the heartbeat of mother earth.”
Bill Runsabove, Northern Cheyenne composer and singer of traditional songs.

The drum is an important instrument for Indian people, giving both rhythm and meaning to life. It provides the beat for dancers to proudly offer their thanks and praise to the Creator and the Mother Earth during ceremonies. It was and still is used to help heal the sick and as a way of carrying songs and prayers to the Great Above All Person. The tradition of the drum is still very important today and is a way of bringing the People together.

photo of the back of the turtle drum

In the northern plains there are two main kinds of drums. The hand drum (pictured above) is usually played by only one person, but several people can play their hand drums together to create rhythms for a winter round dance, for instance.

The second kind of drum is played at powwows. The modern powwow is a relatively recent development in Indian Country. Music for these social occasions is provided by several people playing and singing around one large drum, set on a stand. “Drum” is also the name given to the group of people that plays the large drum together. The names given to the drum often refer directly to the places where the people live. Below is a photo of Pat Kennedy and the Starr School Singers, named after the Starr School Community in Browning, on the Blackfeet Reservation.

photo of Pat Kennedy and the Star School Singers

Before Europeans arrived on the continent, the peoples of the northern plains depended almost entirely on animal hides to furnish clothing, shelter and most of the other objects of day-to-day living. They always gave thanks to the animals for giving their lives to feed and clothe the People. Historically, Indian drums were made from the hides of buffalo, elk or deer. Today they are sometimes made from cowhide.

The drum-making process begins with soaking the hides for 24 hours or more. The hides are then stretched on a flat frame and the hair is removed with a metal scraper. In the 19th Century, the blade of the scraper may have come from the seat of a covered wagon or a buggy abandoned by immigrants and appropriated by Indians. The scraper handles were made from animal bones or horns.

Once the hair is removed from the hide, the hide must be cut and shaped and dried. If the drum is painted, natural paints made from ground-up earth powders are mixed with water and applied using a brush made from bone. The drum making process is often accompanied by stories and legends that illuminate the significance of the drum's central place in ceremonial life.

Pat Kennedy is a Chippewa Cree elder who is known throughout the region for composing songs and for being among those who started the celebration, which became Browning Indian Days. His CD is available from the Montana Arts Council.


1. Invite Al Chandler Goodstrike to your classroom. Al is a master hide worker and painter from the Gros Ventre tribe (ah ah ni nin meaning “white clay people” is the name that the Gros Ventre use for the themselves) on the Fort Belknap reservation in north central Montana. He has won awards at all the major Indian art shows for his exquisite earth-painted hides and has served as a master in two traditional arts apprenticeships.

Al Chandler Goodstrike's earth paints

Al teaches students to make Indian hand drums with natural materials. He demonstrates how drums are created from animal skins, discussing the current laws and regulations governing the use of animal hides.

In addition to making an actual drum, Al’s students learn how Indian people invented ingenious uses of natural materials from their environment to create objects of beauty for everyday use. They learn about the history and culture of American Indian peoples, the importance of drums and drum making to their ceremonial life, and the different kinds of drums that are used for different kinds of singing and ceremonies.

According to Al, the most important outcome of his residency is an increase in the students’ self esteem as they see what they can accomplish.

2. Bring in a tape or CD with Native American songs and drumming. One excellent choice would be The Badland Singers: Live at Santa Fe, a group of Indian singers from Brockton, Montana. Listen together. Ask students to talk about what they hear. Watch the video of the Wacipi Pow Wow at Talk about the elements of the Pow Wow, the significance of the songs and dances and the centrality of the drums. Ask students whether they have ever been to a Pow Wow and to share their experiences of it.

3. Read a drum legend in class and discuss its symbolism and significance to Native American culture. The Ojibwa Dance Drum: Its History and Construction by Thomas Vennum Jr., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983, is a good source for more detailed information about the large dance drum of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) people.

3. Do a lesson on the buffalo hide paintings of the Plains Indians. Use the Smithsonian OurStory module at This resource provides insights into the significance of the buffalo in Indian life and the art of telling that story in a traditional hide painting. The technique used to paint this hide is similar to that employed by Al Chandler Goodstrike today. Discuss the various uses of painted hides in Native American culture, including drums.

4. Find the Fort Belknap Reservation on the Montana map. Learn more about this tribe at What other tribes are there in Montana and where are their reservations on a map? Have students conduct research to learn about other Montana tribes, as well as those in other states and regions. What are their drumming and drum making traditions? Are they different from the Gros Ventre? How? What are the similarities?

Potential Content Standards (not grade level specific)

  • Art: 1.1-5; 2.1-6; 3.1-5; 5.1-6; 6.4
  • Social Studies: 1.1; 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.5, 3.7; 4.1-7; 6.1-6
  • Library Media: 3.1-3; 4.1, 4.2
  • Speaking and Listening: 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 2.5; 3.6; 4.3;
  • Writing: 6.1-4
  • Literature: 1.6; 4.1-3; 5.1-3
  • Reading: 1.1-5
  • World Languages: 1.1-5; 4.1-4; 8.1; 9.2, 9.3

Selected Resources


Native Web

National Museum of the American Indian

Smithsonian Institution Native Networks

National Museum of American History Buffalo Hide Exhibit

Pow Wow Information

Fort Belknap and the Gros Ventre


Over a Century of Moving to the Drum: Salish Indian Celebrations on the Flathead Indian Reservation,Johnny Arlee

The Ojibwa Dance Drum: Its History and Construction, by Thomas Vennum, Jr.


Wacipi Pow Wow

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